How do we design learning?

Inside the Atomium 2 by O Palsson on Flickr

When we prepare to teach others, what steps do we take? What constrains our choices about how we decide to teach, in what order and manner to present different elements, whether learning is passive, active, or a mixture, and when and how to assess?

I have started a new section in my masters course, on “Learning Design.” I would say that learning design differs from instructional design, in that instructional design is a subset of learning design and it assumes a systematic process of designing and delivering usually-online learning materials which the learner will encounter alone, without fellow learners or teacher present. Even though instructional design is not a term I’ve come across very often in the UK higher education scene, still I hope to learn more about instructional design, as it seems, for good or ill, to be an area of future growth, given the interest in MOOCs and other new forms of online learning.

Returning to the questions in the first paragraph, I have been considering how I plan when I must teach. First I consider what is the topic I must present, and next I consider who will be the students — how old are they, how many will be there, will they already know anything about the topic, and what will be their motivation for learning this. At the back of my head during these steps is (I am thinking here of a single instance of teaching): how long will I have, and what kind of venue and facilities will we be using. Also in the back of my head during all the steps are any institutional constraints or regulations to which I must comply or help my students to comply with. Am I responsible for helping them learn something very high stakes, such as a correct attitude toward prescribing medicines for patients, or can I be more free? If it is high stakes, I make the compliance issues as explicit and easy-to-understand and remember as I can, probably also testing their understanding during our session together. I think of all of these things as the ‘meat’ of what I must teach, and the compliance issues as necessary for my compliance.

Where do my ideas come from? For the content itself, I try to put together a good body of reputable material from peer-reviewed sources which I reference correctly and promptly so that students know what body of evidence I am presenting from. Guess what: I sometimes use Wikipedia as a source for material I am unfamiliar with — not quoting / referencing the article itself, but rather referencing the references in the article.

I use ‘sparks’ or illustrations from current events, from things I’ve read on Twitter. I really ike to use examples from recent discussions or work with colleagues — these carry an authenticity that help students see how the topic could be relevant in their contexts. Images are key. If authentic images are not available or not appropriate for some reason, I will use CC-licensed images from Flickr or Google Images. If I am preparing slides, I post these on Slideshare and tell my students I will or have done so, as they often want to refer back for references or quotes.

I try to include as much active learning and collaborative learning as I can, where the students can share with me and each other what they know and how they apply the topic, as this seems to help deeper learning. I confess this is where I often need ideas, and I will ask other teaching staff as well my teacher husband, “how can I get across or explore this topic in an active way?”

As I embark on this section of my learning, this week I have read The Larnaca Declaration about learning design, which discusses the possibilities around a stylised way of notating learning designs, as a musical composer writes her music in its notation (Dalziel et al., 2013). Whether or not I complete this section with any clearer notion of a learning design notation, I believe I will have much clearer ideas of learning design itself.

Terese Bird, – University of Leicester School of Medicine

Dalziel, J., Conole, G., Wills, S., Walker, S., Bennett, S., Dobozy, E., Cameron, L., Badilescu-Buga, E. and Bower, M. (2013) Larnaca Declaration, Australia, ALTC Fellowship.


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